Forgiveness: The First Step Toward Reconciliation
There will be few who have not been deeply shocked by recent events in the Middle East. The whole region has been riven with conflict and thousands of nationals and foreigners have been maimed or killed. Much attention has been focused on those who have been taken hostage, and in particular those who have suffered a brutal death at the hands of their captors.
Twenty years ago, when I was deeply involved in negotiating for the release of hostages in the Middle East, I was captured in Beirut. The story of the events leading to my incarceration is complicated, but in essence I fell foul of political duplicity. I was promised safe conduct by my captors to visit hostages whom I was told were ill and one was about to die. I decided to take a chance and visit the dying man. Instead I was thrown into an underground dungeon and for almost five years was chained by the hands and the feet to the wall, and blindfolded when anyone came into the room. I had no books or papers for well over three years; no contact whatsoever with the outside world, and was left in total and complete solitary confinement.
One night the door of my cell opened and I quickly pulled the blindfold over my eyes. The chains around my hands and feet were unlocked and I was told to stand. Someone took my arm and I was guided out of the cell and into another room. I was told to lie down, which I did. Then the questioning began. My captors mistakenly believed that I was an agent of Government and threw questions at me, about which I knew absolutely nothing. The questioning stopped and someone placed a pillow over my face and sat on it.
Then I felt a searing pain across the soles of my feet as they were repeatedly struck with cable. The questions were repeated and once again I said that I had nothing to say. Mercifully the beating stopped and I was told to stand. As I could not walk, I was assisted back to my cell, the chains were once again secured, and I was left alone. As I sat in the dark, strangely enough, I do not remember feeling anger against my tormentors. Rather I felt pity. Pity that anyone could be so cowardly as to treat a helpless individual in the way I had been treated.
Alas, the torment was not over. Far from it. One night, some weeks after the beating, one of the leaders of the group entered my cell. “You have five hours to live,” he whispered. “Think hard. You have five hours.” He then stood and left the room. It now seemed that I was approaching the end of my life on this earth. For weeks I had been questioned and beaten, and frankly was exhausted. At that time I remembered something I had read, I think in the writings of the late Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist. He said that when you face the extremities of life, allow your body to come to your aid and it will. Now, at this critical point, I understood what he meant, for I lay down on the floor and fell asleep. After what must have been five hours, I was woken by a key turning in the lock. I tightened the blindfold and my chains were released. Again I was led into an adjoining room and told to stand still. “Do you want anything?” a voice asked me. For the first time in my life my throat had gone dry with fear. I was not afraid of death itself, for that will happen to all of us sooner or later. Rather I was afraid of pain. Will it hurt when the bullet goes through my body? I asked for tea and it was brought to me. I was then asked to write a letter to my wife and family, and another to my friends. I was allowed to write looking beneath my blindfold.
Finally I was asked if there was anything further I wanted and I said I would like to say a prayer. They said I could and I recited out loud the Lord’s Prayer. Then I was told to turn around and when I had done so I felt cold metal against my temple. It stayed there for several moments and finally it was removed and I was told, “Another time.” Following this event I was to remain in captivity for almost another four years, but the beatings and interrogations stopped as my captors told me they believed that I was a humanitarian, not a secret agent.
Hostage taking is a grim, cowardly and miserable business. However, I have enough faith in human nature to believe that suffering, whilst always difficult, need not destroy. Out of the most dreadful of circumstances it is possible for unexpected creativity to emerge.
Shortly after the death by beheading of a British hostage, Ken Bigley, I went to see his aged mother in Liverpool, England. She was not too well and confined to bed. I sat by her side as she spoke of the death of her son. “Nothing,” she said, “nothing can describe what I feel at this time. To lose a son in such a way is terrible.” Then she said something quite remarkable. “But my suffering is little different from the suffering of a mother in Iraq who has lost her child as a result of warfare.”
For me those few words uttered by a lady experiencing the very depths of suffering expressed so much. We are all members of the human race, regardless of our nationality, creed or color.
Since my release from Beirut, I have returned to Lebanon twice. The last time was to visit the Syrian border to meet some of the refugees who were pouring into Lebanon to escape from the bloody conflict in their own country. Time and time again I have asked myself how peace can ever come to people who need it so badly. Without question there is no easy answer, but I am sure that there can be no political solution unless there is a measure of trust and understanding between ordinary people on opposing sides, and the past is put firmly in the past. I then said to myself that it is useless for me to mouth such sentiments without doing something about it. On my return, I made contact with my former captors. Over twenty years earlier, I had gone at night to their secret headquarters hoping to visit hostages who were on the point of death. Now, years later, I drove at night to see the same people at their secret bunker in Beirut. Understandably they were suspicious at first, and greeted me cautiously. I then said that it was right for me to put the past in the past and I was prepared to do that. Frankly they were amazed, and for the first time responded to me as a fellow human being. I then said that I would like them to do something for me and that was to provide heating oil for the refugees on the border. They agreed to do this.
Now, let me be quite clear. I am not saying that my one simple act of forgiveness will bring about massive change in that situation. However, if more people were to make similar gestures we would begin to have a basis for a political solution [to many hostage situations]. There is a lot of anger around at the moment and it is being channeled negatively. Anger can be like a cancer that enters the soul. It does more harm to those who hold it than to those against whom it is held. Forgiveness is an essential first step to reconciliation. It is essential for our own health and for us to grow unto our true humanity. +
This article first appeared in the fall 2014 edition of The Episcopal New Yorker and is reprinted with permission.